Anschutz wins 'Sahara' case — for now


Author Clive Cussler failed to deal fairly with Phillip Anschutz's Crusader Entertainment over the production of "Sahara," a Los Angeles jury ruled Tuesday in ordering Cussler to pay $5 million in damages.

The film, directed by Breck Eisner and starring Matthew McConaughey and Penelope Cruz, was released by Paramount Pictures in 2005.

But the verdict was mixed, with jurors finding that Crusader was obligated to pay Cussler what could end up being $8.5 million for second-picture rights to another Dirk Pitt novel he sold to Anschutz's company. A later determination of the value of those rights could erase Anschutz's win.

After eight days of deliberations in the highly publicized trial, the jury unanimously awarded Crusader $2.5 million for past economic damages and $2.5 million for future economic damages. The jury found that Crusader honored its deal with Cussler but that Cussler "unfairly" interfered with the contract and harmed the film's boxoffice performance.

Outside the courtroom, lawyers for both sides spun the verdict in their clients' favor.

"This is a huge victory for Crusader," Crusader counsel Marvin Putnam of O'Melveny & Myers said of the verdict.

Factoring in the $5 million jury award to Crusader, Cussler's lead attorney Bert Fields said his client would walk away with about $3.5 million. It was a "no harm, no foul" verdict, Fields said.

"They found (Cussler) violated the contract — as did Crusader — probably his making derogatory remarks about the film, but that's not clear," Fields said. "But he's been vindicated. He gets his rights back and $3.5 million."

Added Cussler: "I didn't come into this for any money at all. I just wanted to get my book (rights) back."

But Putnam said that's not entirely true. Although the jury found Crusader should pay Cussler, the decision as to how much the writer is entitled, if any, for the second film is up to Judge John Shook.

Shook told both sides he would call them today with a date for the bench trial on that claim.

Cussler sued Crusader in January 2004 seeking $40 million in damages, claiming that the production company owned by Anschutz breached its contract by failing to give him full script approval for "Sahara." Cussler claimed that Crusader ripped the heart out of the story, causing the film to flop.

In a cross-complaint, Crusader alleged that it was Cussler who sabotaged the film by making disparaging public comments about it and encouraging his fans to boycott it. It sought at least $115 million in damages. The trial lasted four months, and the jury started deliberations May 3.

Jury foreman Anthony Villa, a family law clerk in the Orange County Superior Court, said the contract between the two sides played a big part in the deliberations. Each juror scoured over the contract throughout deliberations, he said.

"The contract was a nightmare," Villa said, adding that it was hard to decipher. "Both parties are at fault. We didn't stick to one side."

On the breach-of-contract claims by both Cussler and Crusader, the jury found neither side was harmed by any breach of the contract. The jury awarded no damages on both sides' fraud claims, with the $5 million in damages awarded on Crusader's claim for breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing.

The jury found that Cussler made false representations and knew those representations were false. However, Crusader's reliance on those facts was not a substantial factor in causing harm to the production company, the jury found.

The jurors also chose to not award punitive damages to either side. For Crusader, the jury found that the production company did not provide clear and convincing evidence that Cussler's misrepresentations were with malice, fraud or oppression.

Leslie Simmons is a senior staff writer for The Hollywood Reporter, ESQ.